top of page
  • hbanziger

F - 245 : The Big Lease - How Byzantium got a 50 Ship Navy in 1261

Feeding the important Genovese Harbour of Chios required many Windmills

Driving along the Turkish coast from Bodrum to Troy left me with one overriding impression: the Greek islands of Samos, Chios and Lesbos were so close - right across the sea. Samos at a distance of 1 km, Chios at 4 and Lesbos at 6 km. Clearly, these islands and the mainland share the same geography, history, weather, a similar cuisine (don’t tell the Greek!) but now differ in culture and language. The Greek Army “liberated” them at the end of the 1st Balkan War. In 1912, both sides thought the new border was temporary. Greece aimed to expand its territory into western Anatolia. Turkey expected to get these islands back soon again.

Lesbos to the north, Chios in the middle and Samos to the south - from Google Maps

At the time of my trip, the border was difficult to cross due to the two nations’ dispute over gas and oil fields in the Mediterranean. The border is open, but many ferries were cancelled and crossing takes time. Would have loved to visit the medieval heritage the Genovese left behind. They governed the islands from the 13th to the 15th century. But I had to focus on Plan B for the summer sailing 2022 in case the Turkish-Greek border closed.

Looking at these islands, I was wondering what the Genovese were doing there. They were not prominent places, except Chios for its Mastic. The islands had been Roman since the 1st century BC and were always part of the Byzantine Empire. But in 1261 everything changed.

The Byzantine Emperor Palaiologos asked Genoa to give him a 50 ship Navy. In exchange, he granted Genoa tax and trade privileges throughout the Empire and “leased” them Galata, Chios, Samos and Tenedos. The Treaty of Nymphaeum, as the deal was officially called, was big – 50 galleys meant half the size of the Venetian Navy. It was also expensive. In today’s money worth probably around USD 5 bn. But being broke, the Emperor had no choice. If he wanted a navy, he had to pledge a large part of his future tax and custom revenues – for eternity!

Re-united Byzantium after the Conquest of Constantinople in 1261 - but still squeezed in

The middle of the 13th century was a time of opportunity for the Byzantines. Their mortal enemies, the Turks and Bulgars were both defeated by the Mongols and had to pay sizable annual tributes. It was the chance to rebuild the Empire. Once Byzantium realized that the Mongols would not advance further, they made their move and recovered as much of their territorial losses as possible. Also, Venice, its archenemy, who had sacked Constantinople in 1204 and ruled ever since, was in a relatively weak position. The Egyptian Mamluk, rulers of the Levant since 1250, systematically eliminated one Crusader State after the other. The last one, Akko, fell in 1291 (we visited it in 2018). The Venetian trading income took such a severe hit that the Serene Republic was forced to reduce its fleet.

Genovese Galleys outside the Harbour of Genoa in 1481

For Palaiologos, it was now or never: his one chance to get Constantinople back. But as long Constantinople could be supplied by sea by the Venetian fleet, the chance of getting the old capital back was minimal. Hence the deal with the Genovese. The new Byzantine fleet would cut Constantinople off. Without supplies, the town would have to surrender. By 1261, it was a shadow of its former self. With only 30’000 inhabitants – down from 500’000 at the turn of the millennium – it could hardly withstand any prolonged siege.

Constantinople in the 11th Century when it still had far more Inhabitants

In the end, Constantinople did not fall by siege. An advance Byzantine scouting party found a section of the wall undefended – no surprise with only 30’000 people – climbed it and took the town by surprise. Even Emperor Palaiologos could not believe his luck when told. He immediately returned, got crowned and re-established Byzantine rule plus the Orthodox rites the Venetians had suppressed. For 192 years, Constantinople was Byzantium’s Capital again.

Despite his success, the Byzantine Emperor was in a precarious position. The territory he controlled was too small to deliver sizable tax revenues. The custom fees went mostly to the Genovese. He thus lacked the financial means to build a powerful army. The Mongols remained the pre-eminent players in the region until the middle of the 14th century. Since both the Bulgars and the Seljuks recognized the Mongols as their suzerain, the Mongols had to defend them when attacked. Palaiologos’ room for maneuver was thus limited. He could defend what he had but not really go on the offensive.

Genovese Colonies and Trading Posts in the Black Sea (12th - 14th Century)

All the while the Genovese were busy building their trading operations which put even the successful Venetians to shame. Genovese colonies were established all along the shores of the Black Sea. Galata (we visit in summer 2022) and Chios (same – if border crossing is possible) became their staple places. Chios was particularly important as shelter against the Meltemi, the strong summer wind we encountered in 2017. Genoa pocketed all shipping and most of the tax and custom revenues from trading silk, tea and china. The most profitable trade though was selling Caucasian slaves to the Mamluks in Egypt – yes, the same Mamluk who had eliminated the Christian principalities in the Levant. The profit of all these operations was huge and gave Genoa the financial means to directly challenge Venice in the War of Chioggia in 1380 – Genoa almost won.

The fortified Town of Chios with modern Artillery Bastions as in Rhodes (Knights of St John)

The rural parts of the three islands were barely affected by any of this. Due to its important port Chios had twice as many inhabitants as today (30’000) but they all lived in the town. Lesbos, Chios and Samos were ruled like any other medieval, agricultural society in Europe. Feudal Genovese families were the Lords and lived from land taxes. It was a modest living except for the few families who owned Mastic plantations – a kind of chewing gum popular in the Levant.

Anavatos in Central Chios is today mostly uninhabited - life is too hard up here

Due to the ever-present threat of pirates, the Genovese settled the locals in new villages where the external houses formed a defensive wall but let the villagers fight for themselves. These structures are still visible today. Bigger castles and fortifications were only built to protect the major harbors.

Mytilene Castle on Lesbos - the Walls did not withstand the Ottoman Siege Guns for long - the Castle fell after a short siege in 1462

Once Constantinople fell, the days of Genovese rule were numbered. The Ottomans revoked the Genovese trading privileges. They would not make the mistake of letting their tax revenue accumulate to foreigners. Chios lost its importance as staple place. For a few decades, the Ottoman Sultans let the Genovese rule the islands and only asked for large annual tributes. But by 1566, after Suleiman the Magnificent failed to conquer Malta, Chios was invaded. It was the last of the three island to fall. For the next 350 years, the islands were part of the Ottoman Empire.

31 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page